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CROAKS, FIASCOS AND LOVE STORIES
BY Pau Nadal

The one hundred and fifty two years of life of the Gran Teatre del Liceu are, as can be imagined, speckled with a large number of anecdotes of the most diverse type. The following is no more than a short selection of these.

The composer Tomás Bretón, after the success of Los amantes de Teruel, went on to write for the Liceu the work Garín, which included the traditional Catalan folk-dance, the Sardana, and this work was also a spectacular success. He received great eulogies. On one occasion, the members of the Liceu Circle presented him, as a gift, a Havana cigar box. Visibly moved, he opened the box and saw that it contained twenty-seven five hundred peseta notes. At that point, one of those present, with great modesty, to detract from the magnitude of the gift, piped up: "So you can buy matches to light your cigars".

During the first few years of the theatre, the French conductor, Baudouin, spoke only French and therefore was not able to communicate fluently with the musicians. One day, he abruptly called the attention of one of the violins: "Voyons", he said, "plus vite". The violinist in question did not understand French, and replied angrily: "If there’s one of them here, it’s you."

At one time, the conductor Joan Goula and a bass were performing in a kind of soupy musical farce, and they thought that nobody noticed how bad it was. The bass even took the liberty of changing the words and sang: "Goula, Goula, we've fooled them". However, great was his surprise when a voice replied from the heights: "You haven’t fooled me".

The first years of great Wagnerian devotion in the Liceu gave rise to many anecdotes. One day, just after the first few notes of the Valkyrie, one member of the public exclaimed quite audibly: "I think I'm going to like this". On another occasion, one spectator was heard to say, though in a lower tone of voice "I'll have to sit through the entire Tristan, which I don't like, just to get to the death of Isolda, which I don't particularly like either".

A lot has been said about the fees charged by famous opera singers. This year, it appears that the Liceu, like other theatres, has established an official maximum figure, at present, three million pesetas. However, we should remember that while many years ago (1884 and 1887), the tenors Angelo Masini and Julián Gayarre, two stars of their age, received five thousand pesetas per performance in the Liceu.

We have the declarations of Richard Strauss during his fourth visit to Barcelona in 1925: "In Barcelona, I have always received the warmest of welcomes. I was applauded and cheered in the Líric Theatre in 1897 at the premiere of Don Juan and Tod und Verklärung and when I conducted Heldenleben and Till Eulenspiegel. I also remember the success I obtained when I conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in 1908. I know that two years ago, many admirers wished to greet me in the port of Barcelona on the beginning of my journey to America, but I had to change my itinerary owing to a seamen's strike and had to postpone the visit. The second time I was here, I remember I went for a walk one day in the Barri Gòtic, which is simply delightful. After that, I had lunch at Tibidabo; then I was brought to a bullfight and that night I went to a concert of the Orfeó Català. So I went straight from a bullfight to the Pope Marcel Mass".

In his memoirs, the impresario Joan Mestres i Calvet recalls the amusing dialogues between Wassilier, the Russian ballet master, and the gypsy dancers whom Laura de Santelmo had brought to give greater authenticity to the choreography at the premiere of La vida breve and El amor brujo.

In the history of the Liceu, much has been written and said of the singular lack of success of one of the great figures of opera, Enrico Caruso. But it is one thing not to be particularly successful and another for a singer's voice to crack, especially when that singer is famous, as was the case of Luciano Pavarotti in La Traviata and Nicolai Gedda in Rigoletto. Even Montserrat Caballe's voice cracked during a performance of La Traviata. It can happen to the best.

The well-known journalist, Vladimir de Semir, son of the soprano, Maya Mayska, at present part of the staff of Joan Clos, the Mayor of Barcelona, when very young played the silent role of Duke Gottfried in performances of the Wagner opera Lohengrin, which featured the great tenor Sandor Knoya.

The North American tenor, Nathan Boyd, who sang the part of Radames in Aida, in the 1962-63 season, thought that the Sunday performance was in the evening, and sat down to a succulent paella in the well-known Los Caracoles Restaurant, but as soon as he had finished he was told to fly to the Liceu as it was in fact a matinee performance starting at five o’clock. So the man was not in a condition to sing, and the performance was a fiasco.

Between the forties and the seventies, Pepe Sotil was an entertaining character in the Liceu. He was telephonist, porter, messenger and many other things to boot. He also understood opera. This is demonstrated by one occasion when Pepe was entering the rooms of the mezzo-soprano Biancamaria Casoni, who was at that time playing the part of Rosina in The Barber of Seville. Her handkerchief dropped to the ground and Pepe picked it up gracefully and uttered the same words as does the Count of Almaviva in a similar situation: "Se fosse una ricetta".

A soprano who at the end of the seventies played the role of Antonia in the Jaques Offenbach opera The Tales of Hoffman was a little nervous before coming on stage, and so decided to give herself a little tonic and opened a bottle of cognac. However, she didn’t get the dose right and so when she went on stage she was quite merry.

One particular anecdote the veracity of which has often been questioned, but which deserves to be believed, illustrates the fact that at times, the Liceu had to resort to great extremes to cut down expenses. Antonio Gades, the great dancer and choreographer, was preparing one of his shows and needed eighteen stage hands for the stage work, but when news came to Masó, the administration director, who was well capable of playing deaf, the latter replied: "Eight? Out of the question. He'll have to do with four."

The last great dramatic incident up in the old Liceu featured the now deceased Italian conductor, Lamberto Gardelli, who achieved great prestige for his recordings. One day, while conducting Il Trovatore, opposition to his interpretation was being voiced quite decisively. The man lost his cool and started to shout about the Italian Mafia and God only knows what else, and the affair culminated with his stopping conducting and leaving the podium. Finally, he returned with the hope of resuming the performance, thinking that he could settle everything with a booming "Viva la Catalogna!"

We should go back a little in time to end this account with a love story. In the 1963-64 season, the final kiss in the first act between Butterfly and Pinkerton continued on after the curtain fall and presaged the marriage between the artists playing these two roles, Montserrat Caballé and Bernabé Martí.